Sebastian Faulks – Where My Heart Used to Beat
Sebastian Faulks is a rare bird on the festival circuit so the crowds are out on Saturday morning. One of the most impressive novelists of his generation, in conversation with journalist and novelist Elizabeth Day, his eloquence on the issues addressed in his work is compelling. What his novels sell so successfully is an imagined version of events, which are informed by research but essentially malleable. Finishing the drafting one of these novels, he admits, is a bit like turning on the lights after a teenage party and surveying the chaos before you.
His books can be grouped loosely by the questions they pose: How did we get to this point? What are we? What went wrong in the twentieth-century, and how far was the fault of the human genome? His latest novel, Where My Heart Used to Beat, brings to a conclusion his exploration of the themes that long have preoccupied him.
Humans are unusual in the animal world for their consciousness, he says. The distinguishing feature of homo sapiens is the inherent knowledge that he will ultimately die. As Faulks sees it, World War I showed that mankind isn’t the pinnacle of being. In fact, we come some way down in the cosmic pyramid.
Love and madness crop up again and again in his books. Love as a transcendent experience, madness as an illustration of just how precarious the human brain is. And examining people under the extreme stresses of war, as he done so brilliantly, brings into relief the frailties of humanity.
Birdsong, the novel for which he is best known is “a book of broad brushstrokes and loud noises,” an example of the adage that “if in doubt, go big.” It was a risk to write like that and he wouldn’t do so again but it was the book that catapaulted him to fame.
His years as a journalist allowed Faulks not to be intimidated by his own ignorance. Pick up the telephone, introduce yourself as a journalist on The Independent (where he started his career) and almost inevitably the person at the other end of the line will tell you what you want to know. It’s a useful way to overcome shyness, from which he suffers, and diffidence.
Excursions into writing in another voice – that of Ian Fleming and P.G. Wodehouse – were diverting but he doesn’t think he’ll make a habit of it. “We have a saying in our family: One funny, twice silly, three times a smack.”
Though writing in the style of Fleming wasn’t particularly challenging, thinking up a story presented a few problems. Thrillers are not Faulks’ preferred reading material and Bond was not the most flexible of characters as a subject, due to his lack of introspection and the consequent need to define the character through interaction with external elements: whereas the challenge of taking on Jeeves was to capture the idiosyncratic style of his creator, a masterful writer.
So, what now? Ideas come from many places and he likes to plot and plan. Currently, he’s living in Paris. “I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it.” Asked by Day for his opinion on the EU referendum he says that his “inner hooligan” would quite like England to cut loose from the EU, but he thinks he’ll vote with David Cameron, not least because to take the same position on a political point as George Galloway and Nigel Farage would be unpalatable in the extreme.
The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
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